Professor, Indigenous rights activist question why Pope was gifted a headdress

After the long-anticipated apology from the Pope in Maskwacis Alta., Monday, Grand Chief of the Confederacy of Treaty Six First Nations Wilton Littlechild presented the Holy Father with a headdress.

'It's an honouring of the work that he has done,' Samson Cree elder says

After delivering a long-awaited apology Monday, Pope Francis was presented with a traditional headdress by Chief Wilton Littlechild in Maskwacis, Alta. (Guglielmo Mangiapane/Reuters)

After the long-anticipated apology from the Pope in Maskwacis Alta., Monday, Grand Chief of the Confederacy of Treaty 6 First Nations Wilton Littlechild presented the Holy Father with a headdress.

But not everyone is applauding Littlechild's gesture.

After Pope Francis's apology, Littlechild — a former commissioner of the TRC — placed the headdress on the Pontiff's head, over his papal zucchetto.

The pope donned the regalia briefly before having it removed by his staff.

Samson Cree elder John Crier supports Littlechild's decision to gift the headdress to the Pope.

"The giving of the headdress is honouring a man as the honourary chief and leader in a community. So, in doing that it actually adopted him as one of our leaders in the community," said Crier.

"It's an honouring of the work that he has done and it also is recognizing from the community that here's a man that belongs to our tribe."

Pope's apology an opportunity for rest of Canada to start 'doing their work,' survivor says

10 months ago
Duration 5:47
Samson Cree Nation Elder John Crier, a residential school survivor, said that while Indigenous Peoples are working to heal, he expects people and governments across Canada to act on this opportunity for reconciliation. 'After all, we're in this together,' Crier said.

The headdress donned by the Pope, the war bonnet, is held in high regard.

In 1987, when John Paul II visited Canada he met with Indigenous leaders and urged the church's solidarity with Indigenous peoples in Canada. Yet, Pope Francis is the first Pontiff to receive a war bonnet on a visit to Canada.

Riley Yesno is a Anishinaabe writer and Indigenous rights activist based in Toronto. She says allowing the Pope to be held in such high regard is frustrating.

"The church is here because it didn't act very honourably and the church continues not to act very honourably."

Yesno says she believes Indigenous people have been gracious to the Pope but, neither the Pope nor the Catholic church has returned the gesture.

"We're gifting things to the Pope and the Pope is not returning these [gestures] on the list of things that are actually meant to happen."

Niigaan Sinclair, professor of Indigenous Studies at University of Manitoba, says allowing prominent people to take part in significant Indigenous traditions can devalue their meaning.

"To give our most sacred items to those who, perhaps demonstrate goodwill, but don't deliver on the promises is just very upsetting, and it's also very degrading to our own ceremonial items."

Sinclair says although many viewed the papal visit and the gifted headdress as a turning point, there is still pain in the community.

"It is, at times, a very complicated day. It's not a day to celebrate. It's a day to realize that the traumas are still ongoing in our community and to sit to feel that pain."

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for residential school survivors and others affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.

Support is also available for anyone affected by their experience at Indian or federal day schools. Individuals can access immediate mental health counselling and crisis intervention services at the Hope for Wellness helpline by calling 1-855-242-3310 or online at www.hopeforwellness.ca.


Katarina Szulc is a reporter for CBC News in Edmonton. She previously worked at CityNews 1130 in Vancouver. You can email story ideas to Katarina.Szulc@cbc.ca.